BELLINGHAM — Whatcom County industries that offer living-wage jobs in the skilled trades are finding it hard to hire workers, but several public and private-sector programs are hoping to change that.

Whatcom County’s unemployment rate has remained low for the past several years. That’s left high-paying construction, nursing and transportation industries struggling to find new employees, according to a recent Employment Security Department report measuring employer demand by looking at online help-wanted postings.

Plenty of jobs that aren’t commonly posted online, such as plumbers, welders and heating/air conditioning technicians, are also going unfilled.

As a college town, Bellingham also has a reputation as a place where young people must work several entry-level, part-time jobs to make a living.

Both issues impact the housing market. Construction projects are postponed or delayed because there are not enough workers, while low wages make it difficult to buy a house or pay rent.

It’s a topic that has come up more often at industry meetings, said Anneliese Vance-Sherman, a regional labor economist for the state.

“Construction businesses are competing for a large number of projects and they have to turn projects away because they do not have the necessary workforce,” Vance-Sherman said in an email to The Bellingham Herald.

Why is there a shortage of skilled-trade workers?

There are many factors in the skilled-trade worker shortage, including demographics, economics and culture.

First, some context: The global financial meltdown in 2008 had long-lasting impacts on local economies. The recession led to the loss of skilled-trade jobs, particularly in construction, in Whatcom County and Washington state.

Local construction cut one in three workers between 2008 and 2010, Vance-Sherman said.

The construction industry also took longer than other industries to rebound in Whatcom County, Vance-Sherman said. With such an acute and long layoff, unemployed skilled-trades workers moved on, either by retiring early, leaving the region or going into new careers.

Construction has rebounded strongly in Whatcom County the past few years, with the number of jobs rising from around 6,000 in May 2015 to around 9,000 in May 2019. But hiring has not matched construction demand.

Bringing youth back into the trades

Demographically, things have changed. Between 2008 and 2015, experienced skilled-trade workers who still had jobs held onto them.

Seasonal construction jobs are typically filled by younger workers, Vance-Sherman said. But with fewer of those jobs during the recession, workers may have been wary of getting into a cyclical industry that was dealing with sluggish hiring.

“This led to another challenge: The pipeline that brings in the workforce essentially dried up,” Vance-Sherman said. “A large cohort of youth missed out on a common introduction to work, and many watched their families struggle.”

Work to re-invigorate that pipeline has started. The Northwest Workforce Council recently held its annual Washington Apprenticeship Vocational Education tour, taking 340 regional high school students to training centers in Mount Vernon to learn about trade careers.

The “yes” in YesWhatcom.com stands for Youth Employment Services, and that’s the focus of the website. It’s a way for students and those just starting out to learn more about local employers, said Laura McKinney, a member of the Whatcom Business Alliance board. She’s also the government affairs and public relations manager at Alcoa Intalco Works near Ferndale.

“One of the challenges in connecting young people to living-wage jobs is that these are not jobs that you would have the opportunity to observe without making an effort,” McKinney said in an email. “You cannot typically walk into a manufacturing facility and ask to see what the job looks like before applying.”

Along with company profiles, there are videos showing how a facility operates as well as details about the company.

“We need for young people to understand what we do and why they would want to come and work for us,” McKinney said.

Drug testing also an issue

While recreational marijuana became legal in Washington state in 2012, many companies continue testing for the drug.

In order to ensure a safe workplace, Alcoa is one of many places that does drug screening for job applicants. Roughly 6 percent of job applicants have failed the drug screening, McKinney said.

Testing positive on job drug screenings is on the rise across the U.S. According to an annual survey done by Quest Diagnostics, workforce positive drug tests hit 4.4 percent in 2018, the highest level since 2004. Broken down by states, Washington’s rate was actually slightly lower than the national average, coming in at 4.2 percent. Whatcom County was higher, falling into the 4.5 percent to 5.5 percent range.

Outlook for trade jobs looks strong

While the construction industry is prone to downward cycles, that’s not expected to be the case in the next five years in this region. In a new report, Washington’s Employment Security Department expects the Northwest region (Whatcom, Skagit, Island and San Juan counties) to annually add construction jobs at a 2.9 percent clip through 2022.

That growth rate prediction would outpace other major industries in the area. The second-highest rate is in professional and business services, rising at a predicted rate of 2.2 percent through 2022.

If that turns out to be the case, it would be good news for the overall economy, Vance-Sherman said.

“Construction and professional and business services are my industry bellwethers, because of the way they connect to all other industries,” Vance-Sherman said.

Skilled-trade wages on the rise

With the shortage of workers, skilled-trade wages have been on the rise. Here are a few examples of average wages for skilled-trade jobs in Whatcom County in June 2018, according to data collected by the Employment Security Department:

Construction laborers: 1,114 employed with an average salary of $47,360.

Construction manager: 287 employed with an average salary of $97,006

Electricians: 513 employed with an average wage of $57,100.

Hairdressers: 225 employed with an average salary of $32,069.

Heating/air conditioning technicians: 135 employed with an average salary of $52,445.

Machinist: 397 employed with an average salary of $51,193.

Registered nurses: employment number not listed, average salary of $59,426.

Welders: 359 employed with an average salary of $47,755.

While many of those jobs pay a living wage, it still requires hard work. But you are rewarded for that hard work, said Jonathan Frey, an employee at Barron Heating & Air Conditioning. Frey, 24, worked in construction during the summers, then worked an office position before deciding he wanted to work a more physical job at Barron.

“My advice for high school students is don’t be afraid of the hard work,” Frey said in an interview. “At some point, it will pay off. Someone will recognize you for it.”